Tigers scratching to find footing

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Tigers scratching to find footing

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Lee Jong-beom and his Kia Tigers teammates congratulate each other after a 6-4 win against the Nexen Heroes at Mokdong Stadium on April 25. [YONHAP]

A new month, a new game. At least, that’s what the Kia Tigers are hoping as the last days of April slip by.

Last year’s Korea Baseball Organization champions have gotten off to such a sluggish start this season that even a key hit that led to a 6-4, 11th-inning win against the Nexen Heroes on Sunday didn’t do much to lift Lee Jong-beom’s spirits.

“We had problems during the whole three-game series in Mok-dong,” the veteran outfielder said. “But I think if we reflect on our mistakes and work hard, we can get back to our championship form.”

They have a way to go. The Tigers are sitting at fifth in league standings, with 10 wins and 13 losses. The shabby record doesn’t reflect the Tigers’ potential, but injuries and mismanagement have been dragging the team down.

“We got off to a slow start last year, too, but we had hope because we had a strong starting pitching rotation,” who contributed the league’s highest or second-highest ERA throughout all of April 2009, said Kia manager Cho Beom-hyun. This year, the Tigers’ pitchers have an ERA of 4.19, fourth in the league standings.

“We have a lot more to worry about this season,” Cho said.

Aquilino Lopez, who played an instrumental role in the Tigers’ Korean Series-winning season, has posted one win, one loss and a 4.55 ERA so far this season. Yoon Seok-min has one win and an ERA of 3.86 and is suffering from pain in his throwing shoulder. Matt Wright was sent down to the minor leagues on April 25 with a hamstring injury. Yang Hyun-jong has three wins, one loss and a 4.71 ERA, but his style has been studied by opposing teams. With the starting rotation destabilized, the struggles have carried into the bullpen.

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Even more troubling is the team’s batting. Kim Sang-hyun, last year’s league leader in home runs, had been struggling with a knee injury all season, and with a back injury flaring up he has been sent down to the minors for a rehabilitation stint. Leadoff hitter Lee Yong-kyu tweaked his swing in the offseason and is still having trouble adjusting. Choi Hee-seop and Na Ji-wan haven’t made much impact so far.

Kia’s batting average was relatively low last season, too, but its home run numbers were among the league’s best. This year, Kia has 11 home runs as a team.

Aside from the low numbers and injuries, the Tigers are exhibiting poor teamwork.

“The veterans on the team are supposed to set an example for the younger players by competing harder, but that hasn’t happened,” said Lee. “As a result, we have done poorly in games which are determined by a run or less.” As a way to motivate the starters, Cho has inserted four reserve players into the starting lineup.

Meanwhile, last year’s runners-up, the SK Wyverns, are riding a 10-game winning streak. SK defeated Lotte 14-4 on April 25, and the team hasn’t lost a match since their 1-6 loss to the Hanwha Eagles on April 14.

SK looks on track to continue their dominance. Their current four-man starting rotation of Kim Kwang-hyun, Gary Glover, Song Eun-beom and Ken Kadokura is the most dangerous in the league. Jung Woo-ram and Lee Seung-ho have also been providing solid relief support from the bullpen. In late May, Jung Dae-hyun and Kim Won-hyung are expected to make their return from injury. On the offense, Park Jung-kwon, Choi Jung and Park Jae-hong have been showing excellent form and even backup players such as Jung Sang-ho and Lim Hoon have been producing of late.

The standout of the group has to be Park Jung-kwon, who was thrust into the team’s cleanup role in spring training. The 29-year-old struggled to make good in the early goings of the season but has come around to produce key hits and home runs during his team’s winning streak. Park has been on fire in his past five games, hitting .500, three home runs and seven RBIs. Park has improved his season average to .390, which is tops in the league, and his five home runs have him tied for second in the league.

SK won 22 consecutive games from late last season to early this season, setting a new league record in the process. The team looks ready to put together another lengthy winning streak.


By Kim Seek, Jason Kim [jason@joongang.co.kr]
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